Saturday, July 7, 2012

Saturday Night in Phoenix

At about 8 p.m., Saturday, June 23, I boarded a yellow school bus, one of hundreds driving from the Phoenix, Arizona, Convention Center to Tent City Jail on the city’s outskirts. There was a pumpkin yellow river of buses flowing through the heat in the fading light. I think every passenger, and every driver, was a little nervous.

The annual gathering of representatives of North American Unitarian Universalist congregations had been billed as a Justice General Assembly. In worship services, plenary sessions, lectures, and workshops – even at the bookstore –participants heard story after story of how our local, state, and national governments treat undocumented immigrants. We had been appalled. Now we were going to hold a vigil outside a notorious detention center. More than 2,000 prisoners were housed in tents, almost unprotected from Phoenix’s extreme temperatures. 

I didn’t know if I could do it: stand for hours on concrete in 100-degree heat, in the midst of a crowd. We just kept coming – busload after busload—shuffling further into the alley outside the curving barbed wire fence, easing our way around the stage being assembled on a flatbed truck. The area was rimmed with police in dark blue uniforms – they were our guardians. Others on the fringes snarled epithets, which we mostly ignored. Some of us were handed flashlight candles. I got a laminated yellow sign proclaiming “Standing on the side of LOVE.” 

 Somehow, I wound up right in front of the stage. Even as microphones were secured and our crowd accumulated, we were urged to sing – to sing loud enough for the inmates to hear. I tried. And the crowd kept coming, busload after busload, until there had to be 2,000 of us – as many outside as inside. The stage evolved. More performers and speakers arrived. Our songs and slogans got louder. There was no way to know how much time had passed. Evidently an official delegation had toured the prison. I could see their faces as they climbed into the spotlights. They were ashen. Each man and woman had been visibly shaken. “I cannot believe people are treated like this in my country.” 

 Television crews started showing up. Every time I saw a camera, I held up my yellow sign. And kept singing and shouting slogans. And drinking water. I had brought a thermos, soon empty. Extra water bottles were passed. There always seemed to be enough. I don’t believe I ever sweated more profusely. 

Eventually, almost mysteriously, we got the signal. Those of us in the front began walking back toward the buses. Those in back moved close to the stage. Everything was slow, deliberate. 

We were told that our vigil got a lot of media attention. I hope so. I hope what we did, did some good. I hope someday we as a nation treat all people, and families, with dignity and respect, whether they have documents or not. 

And I hope the inmates heard our songs.

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